COURTENAY -- While BC Ferries is getting ready to unveil the first of its new Island Class vessels Wednesday, the union representing ferry workers is concerned the new ships will lead to job losses.

The newest vessel, Island Discovery, will begin service on the Powell River to Texada Island route beginning Wednesday afternoon, taking over for the 59-year-old North Island Princess, which has now been retired. 

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall says the new vessels will be more efficient to operate and therefore will require fewer crew members. They are expected to operate with five crew members, which is one to two fewer employees, depending on the route. 

Graeme Johnston, president of the union representing ferry employees, says the old North Island Princess ran with a crew of seven, so the reduction will mean the loss of three deck hands and three engine room assistants in total for the route.

"That's six good family-supporting union paying jobs," Johnston says. "If I was a community member on Texada, I would be concerned about the $300,000 a year that will be evaporating from my community."

Johnston says the union was surprised to learn BC Ferries had secured a lower license requirement for crew aboard the vessels on Friday.

"It was a total shock to us and something that seems, quite frankly, unsafe," Johnson says, adding that should emergency occur, the vessels will be understaffed.

"When there is an emergency and you're looking to evacuate a number of people, while simultaneously fighting a fire or dealing with a man-overboard type of situation, it's something that we're deeply concerned about," he says.

Texada Island Chamber of Commerce president Cindy Babyn says the organization is also concerned about the reduction.

"The Texada Island Chamber of Commerce is very concerned about the possibility of any job cuts," she says. " BC Ferries is a very important employer for Texada residents."

BC Ferries says improved technology on the vessels is what will allow them to operate with a reduced crew and the ships will also be better for the environment.

Marshall says the battery-equipped vessels are fitted with hybrid technology that will be used until shore-charging infrastructure is in place. 

The next route to see one of the new vessels will be the Port McNeill-Alert Bay-Sointula run. The Island Aurora should be in service next week and is currently docked at Buckley Bay.

Future runs will become active in 2022 when two ferries each will service Campbell River to Quadra Island and Nanaimo Harbour to Gabriola Island. The routes will operate with either one or two vessels, depending on demand.